On Crime Does Not Pay

Some of it is still shocking. Even here in 2012, even in a world where just about anything is available with a few clicks on a mouse and the slightest degree of willpower, there remain aspects of Crime Does Not Pay which really can still dumbfound and unsettle. Reading about the content of Charles Biro’s famous cover for the comic’s third issue, for example, doesn’t inoculate against the recoil of unpleasantness which the business of actually seeing it for the first time inspires. A powerful brute in a fashionable check jacket forces a desperately writhing woman’s head to a lit gas ring. Her hair has already started to burn, her eyes are wide open with the terror of the knowledge of what’s happening to her.  There’s no prospect of escape here, for even should the policeman who’s breaking into the house, as shown in the background of the cover, manage to rescue her from death, she’ll still be appallingly burnt, traumatised and terribly scared. In the intense focus and obviousness of its presentation of this brutality, Biro’s work carries not a hint of good-humour, let alone irony. (By contrast, those many moments in Crime Does Not Pay where its creator’s tongues are quite obviously buried right into their cheeks carry little of the sense of surprise and transgression which its most apparently straight-faced moments still transmit.) In short, the cover to Crime Does Not Pay #24 isn’t a single moment extracted from a narrative in which the reader is presented with the evidence of the criminal’s sins just prior to the comforting inevitability of the criminal’s punishment. Instead, it’s one that reflects a prurient fascination with the bleakest excesses of power and cruelty and suffering. In other words, it’s nothing less or more than torture porn, and torture porn designed to appeal specifically to young male teenagers and pre-pubescents to boot.

Scenes of burning, helpless women were obviously something of a tradition in the pages of Crime Does Not Pay. Even in the tiny fraction of the title’s 13 years worth of stories currently available in Dark Horse’s splendid Blackjacked And Pistol-Whipped collection, there’s a host of sequences showing the torching of a range of female stereotypes. There’s the beautiful blondes throwing themselves to their deaths in their lingerie in a futile attempt to escape a deliberately-set tenement blaze in The Fire Fiends Of Missouri. There’s the woman hopelessly trapped in her bedroom as her boarding house is fired in The Beast Of Brooklyn, and there’s even the double perversity of the strangled corpse of an elderly woman set alight by her murderous son in So Mean He’d Kill His Own Mother. Even though these scenes lack the obsessional intensity of Biro’s rough-hewn cover to #24, they similarly reflect the conviction that an audience of millions of boys wants nothing more or less than to see other people gruesomely suffer. The story’s patently not the thing here, but the suffering very much is. It doesn’t take a mentality which is in any way sympathetic to the opinions of Fredric Wertham or to the denial of First Amendment rights to regard Crime Does Not Pay as having always been a moral panic waiting to happen.

We’re used to seeing the exploitation comic-books of the forties and fifties discussed in the context of the supposedly-corrupting effects that they had upon their young readers. As Wertham himself regularly stated, the worst of the comics industry’s product caused an excess of debased morals, sexual perversity, and the many and varied ills of juvenile delinquency amongst the nation’s young. Yet the very medium itself was understood by Wertham to be a  psychologically corrupting one, and exposure to it apparently undermined cognitive development where such vital processes as “spontaneity” and literacy were concerned. Wertham and his various worthy allies from a variety of political interests never managed to explain how this process actually worked, of course, in anything other than the vaguest of fashions, or even to suggest any kind of casual model which could be tested beyond anecdotal observations such as those noting that young criminals tended to have read a comic or two. But then, the whole process of creating folk devils out of comic-books and their creators was never concerned with science, or any other form of rational thinking. For the toxicity of Crime Does Not Pay and its fellows was quite literally poisoning the mental health of the nation’s young, and all in the name of a considerable amount of publishing revenue. Stopping the crisis was always more important than establishing that a crisis ever truly existed.

Yet there are other ways in which the content of Crime Does Not Pay illustrates the clash between the imperatives of American capitalism and the holy writ of American myth. Wertham believed that the crime comics of the period undid all of the civilising business of repression which characterised a healthy, socially productive process of child-rearing. To him, any fiction which introduced the young to the very concept of what he regarded as socially harmful behaviour was a profoundly dangerous business, because there were a host of things which children simply ought not to be exposed to. Whether these issues involved the real-world concerns of why a mother might decide to leave her husband, or whether the topic at hand was that of how to slay a vampire, Wertham believed that the young must be protected.

Yet from the perspective of the 21st century, what’s perhaps most remarkable about the contents of Crime Does Not Pay isn’t the way in which the comic’s pages inform the debate about the ethics of selling such full-on trash fiction to the young at all. Instead, what seems staggering is the overwhelming force of the political critique of the America of the time which so many of the comic’s stories appear to present. For those of us who are anything but experts on the comics of the period, it’s regrettably and shamefully easy to think of the four-colour market of the mid-century in the terms of the historical bullet-points to which the past has been inevitably reduced to. Since that focus is predominantly concerned with matters of political censorship and the right to of free expression, childhood corruption and free-market enterprise, it’s easy to read the contents of the stories reprinted in Blackjacked and Pistol-Whipped solely in those terms. Of course, any assault upon the welfare of America’s children was by its very definition a challenge to the moral status quo of the nation, and yet there’s often a line drawn between the issue of protecting children from immoral influences and that of the broader politics of comics such as Crime Does Not Pay. For example, in his wonderful Men Of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones establishes a distinction between the “perverse sensationalism” of Crime Does Not Pay and the fact that the comic “had a distinct political twist”. Yet it’s often hard to see where the offending shlock ended and the politics began. For it often seems as if that apparent lack of concern for the ethical wellbeing of America’s young is simply an aspect of a broader and more generally disdainful attitude to the Republic of the time and its hegemonic ideals. As such, it’s tempting to wonder whether the more potentially damaging charge of Anti-Americanism might have made against Gleason and the creators who worked for him. The publisher had, after all, appeared before HUAC in 1946 and was repeatedly under FBI surveillance. Still, in the end, the charge of corrupting the public’s morals alone did for Crime Does Not Pay in the end

To consider what Crime Does Not Pay was repeatedly and forcibly saying about the America of the forties and fifties is to realise how fundamentally its stories stood in opposition to the deeply conformist and purposefully comforting cultural norms of the period. Much is rightly made of the fact that each of the comic’s stories tended to present proceedings from the perspective of the criminals at hand. If not, as has sometimes been said, a business of representing the narrative exactly from the criminal’s point of view, it undeniably was a deliberate policy designed to increase the intensity of the drama at the inevitable cost of excluding the presence of a more comforting moral framework. Aside from the ritual appearance of the justly death-dealing forces of order at the end of each tale, authority figures tended only to appear in these stories when they stood as an obstacle to a criminal’s desires, and then there was an exceptionally good chance that they’d be the helpless victims of the narrative rather than the powerful guardians of the straight and the true. Worse yet, as Jones writes, there are more than a few examples of the likes of policemen who are anything other than positive, child-inspiring role models on view. The True Life Story Of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, for example, makes it plain that mob money had substantially corrupted New York’s judicial system in the Thirties. The all-mighty and virtuous forces of American democracy often seem distinctly vulnerable in the pages of Crime Does Not Pay, while their evil and contemptible opponents can often seem to be disturbingly powerful and dangerous. Indeed, sometimes justice takes decades to arrive, while the victims of crime pile up as if the Republic was nothing but Capone’s Chicago writ large.

But the stories in Crime Does Not Pay repeatedly went beyond simply presenting an America which was far from the relative idyll that was usually portrayed in mediums associated with youthful consumers. Even in the numbers of woolly-headed progressive jail bosses and parole officials who were shown to be stupidly willing to believe that criminals might ever be reformed, Crime Does Not Pay was often effectively suggesting that the state was in part hopelessly incompetent. Similarly unusual and challenging is the fact that a great many of the criminal careers depicted were often only closed by chance. Though these are stories which always end with the criminal facing a grisly fate, the imperatives of the drama, no matter how crassly presented, mean that there often had to seem to be a very real chance of the antagonist escaping justice. Because of this, the judicial and crime-fighting services regularly come across as at best over-stretched and beleaguered, and at worst unhelpful or even inept. Publishing such tales month-after-month in a form which inevitably produced a slither of empathy for the comic’s supposed antagonists even now produces a sense that America was a ferociously violent and often lawless society where the forces of order could do little to protect the citizenry. It also suggested that the Republic was very much not composed of a majority of easily-identifiable and entirely moral citizens matched against a similarly clearly-labelled and yet tiny minority of wrong-thinking deviants. Peace and security is never the norm in Crime Does Not Pay, and the implication is always that a thousand terrible crimes are occurring even as any one particular irredeemable is being dragged to the electric chair.

Though crime is everywhere in these tales, it’s rarely associated with the upper classes, unless it’s to present them as victims. But elsewhere in white America, not only is the most anti-social of behaviour quite clearly a social plague, but it’s also unstoppable too. There appears to be no hope for an end to the endless sequence of crime waves, for the criminal is, as mentioned above, quite unreformable. Jails and reform schools, sympathetic role models and moral exemplars; all of these are always shown to be quite useless. Worse yet, the most despicable of beasts can be born into the most decent and even the most affluent of homes. There’s a cuckoo in the nest in Devil’s Diary, for example, whose fundamental nature determines that he becomes a thief and a murderer despite all the comfort and love in the world having been lavished upon him. Even where there is an explanation hinted at for why the young of the nation’s more privileged children should turn to crime, such as the solidly painful spankings given by the father of the future psychopath in The Wild Spree Of The Laughing Sadist, the message would’ve surely been an uncomfortable one for most parents. Being good and tolerant to your kids won’t necessarily make them good, or even prevent them becoming what we’d now describe as psychopathic, while thrashing them, as was a commonplace business of the age, won’t work either.

It’s in the book’s capacity to suggest that the approaches of both liberals and conservatives are useless that the most disconcerting sense of nihilism is generated. Perhaps because there never was a strict and consistent underlying social purpose to the stories in Crime Does Not Pay, the world-view which the comic presented could appear to stand in opposition to most everybody’s cherished principles. Tough cops and caring cops, decent parents and violent parents, lonesome orphans and well-loved children; nothing helped, it seemed, to prevent the criminal from ruining everything. In the light of such an absurdly cruel world, death always appears as the only solution to the problem of crime, and it would obviously have to be death on something of an industrial scale too. “They” will not tell the truth, “they” cannot be reformed, “they” cannot be imprisoned, and “they” will inevitably escalate their criminal behaviour until more and more innocents suffer. And so, the everyday myth that a good life will lend favour from fate to the virtuous is continually torpedoed in Crime Does Not Pay. Innocent bystanders of the highest individual standards and standing are constantly being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered for no rational reason at all beyond the most short-term of criminal ambitions. A few dollars here, a car-ride there. The world portrayed is often as meaningless and nihilistic as might be imagined. No wonder that so many adults were disturbed by the comic and by the world that it appeared to describe. If this was the America of the shining city on the hill, of the bulwark against godless Communism and the last fortress of decency, then why was the nation at war war with itself, and why did millions of youngsters find such a vision to be so compelling? Such questions are, by chance or design, sparked by the pages of Crime Does Not Pay, and that’s something which so few of the other comics of the period could do. It’s a truth which was especially true of the first few years of the book’s existence, before the crime and then the horror genres became more and more popular.

Yet although Crime Does Not Pay wasn’t produced to further any specific political point of view, it did often delve, as Jones writes, “into the hard, poor environments that had produced its subjects”. In that, there are clearly situational explanations being suggested in stories such as Leo Lepke Buchalter, where teenage would-be hoodlums earn status in the eyes of grown mobsters by quite literally shaking down helplessly younger newspaper boys. And the motivations of so many of these ne’er-do-wells are often strangely couched in terms which any consumerist manifesto might share. These are characters who long for wealth and a life of ease. Martha Langley in The Electric Chair And The Murderess dies frazzled thinking only of the money which she longed for. Peter Treadway, in Crime’s Dumbest Wise Guy, decides that going straight isn’t for him despite his very best intentions because “Thirty dollars a week for working like a horse” isn’t for him. Their ambitions are as typical as their means as despicable, and yet Crime Does Not Pay often makes it plain that its appalling leads will never live a life that’s anything other than tough even if they don’t break the law. Again, there’s a baffling lack of the kind of unambiguous moral superstructure which might have been expected in a comic such as this. More confusing yet, these reprobates are clearly monstrous creatures, and yet they can also perversely represent a sense of social injustice and exclusion too.

Perhaps most disturbingly in the context of the period, these criminals are nearly always intrinsically and distinctly white Americans. They don’t tend to express ideologies associated with supposedly alien causes, and they’re rarely portrayed as having the roots of their criminality in a commonly demonised sub-culture or class beyond that of the urban poor. Even Lucky Luciano is shown being corrupted by young American hooligans while his immigrant Italian parents long for him to pursue a career in medicine. (“I wanta heesa be avocato. Maybe learn da medicine!” says the elder Luciano in a painfully stereotypical sequence.) And given that there’s rarely ever a sight of anyone who isn’t distinctly Caucasian in these stories, the implication is always that the whites of apartheid America are corrupting themselves through a variety of mechanisms without any nefarious influences being stirred into the mix by the internal or external enemies of the social order. Communism and socialism, people of colour and the degenerate attitudes of foreigners; none of these supposed public enemies is consistently presented as the cause of white America’s war with itself.

Instead, the Republic often seems to be little other than a cesspool of crime and denial and random suffering, its helpless white citizens ill-protected by a thin line of public officials and police officers who are themselves at times often helpless, hopeless, or even tainted. In presenting such a radically oppositional and gleefully despairing world-view, Crime Does Not Pay still suggests that America had always been fundamentally corrupt, that there’s little but the most fearsome of responses to be adopted in the face of the situation, and that the only fun lies in watching the Republic’s citizens, sinful or not, destroy each other in as gruesome a manner as possible.

Most but not of the stories discussed in the above are available in the excellent Blackjacked And Pistol-Whipped from Dark Horse, which has a sweet introduction by Brian Azzarello and a marvellous essay from Denis Kitchen.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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